Daily Dose of Europe: Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights

Five centuries of scholars have puzzled, pondered, and pontificated over the meaning of this cryptic triptych. Whatever it ultimately means, the large three-panel painting, with its wonderland of eye-pleasing details, is a garden of artistic delights.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Today, the triptych is a highlight of Madrid’s famous art gallery, El Prado. The basics are pretty similar to other more traditional altarpieces. Hieronymus Bosch painted the story of mankind, from the innocence of creation (left panel), to the sensual pleasures of life on Earth (center), to the fate of sinners in hell after the Last Judgment (right panel).

The left panel is a fantasy Garden of Eden. The world is fresh, everything is in its place, the animals behave virtuously, and even God looks young. Adam and Eve — naked and innocent — get married, with God himself performing the ceremony.

The central panel depicts the Garden of Earthly Delights (that gives the whole work its name). It’s a riot of naked men and women, black and white, on a perpetual spring break — eating exotic fruits, dancing, kissing, cavorting with strange animals, and contorting themselves into a Kama Sutra of sensual positions. In the background rise the fantastical towers of a medieval Disneyland. It’s seemingly a fantasy land of pleasures and earthly delights. But where does it all lead? Men on horseback ride round and round, searching for but never reaching the elusive Fountain of Youth. People frolic in earth’s “Garden,” seemingly oblivious to where they came from (left) and where they may end up…

Now, go to hell. It’s a burning Dante’s Inferno-inspired wasteland where genetic-mutant demons torture sinners. Everyone gets their just desserts, like the glutton who is eaten and excreted into the bowels of hell, the musician strung up on his own harp (a symbol of lust), the gamblers with their table forever overturned, and the sexual harasser hit on by a pig-faced nun. In the center, hell is literally frozen over. Dominating it all, a creature with a broken eggshell body and tree-trunk legs stares out — it’s the face of Bosch himself.

So what does it all mean? So little is known about the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516) that it’s hard to guess his intent. The basic message is that the pleasures of earthly life are fleeting. But if so, is it a condemnation of those “earthly delights” (which lead to hell) or a celebration (to enjoy them while you can)? The frolicking figures of the central panel sure look like they’re having a great time, like innocent kids at play, exploring their bodies and the wonders of the world with no sense of shame. Even the gruesome imagery of hell has a certain black humor to it. It could be that Bosch, who painted numerous standard altarpieces, made this as a kind of secular altarpiece for his sophisticated Burgundian patrons. Or, with its infinitely imaginative innovations, it could be nothing less than an 85-square-foot window into the strange mind of Hieronymus Bosch.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Prado.